It's a tradition millions of Americans will participate in this Thanksgiving. They’ll gather with family at a dinner table crammed with enough turkey, stuffing, dinner rolls, vegetables, and sweet potatoes with marshmallows to plunge each participant into a post-dinner sleep that has more in common with a coma than a nap. Before they pray and begin to stuff themselves, everyone at the table will answer one question: what are you thankful for?
It’s a beautiful and distinctly Christian practice (even if no Christians are at the table, they are unwittingly acting like Christians when they express gratitude). After all, gratitude doesn’t make any sense without God. Without a life-giver, who do you thank for your life? Without a creator, who do you thank for the wonders of creation, including the animals and plants you are about to consume? And without a sustainer, who do you thank for your health and safety?
If you’re a Christian, you should be almost overwhelmed with the options when it’s your turn to express your gratitude. Scripture says thanksgiving is one of the foundational characteristics of a follower of Christ. Colossians 2:6-7 identifies this practice as the primary response to receiving Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. “As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, rooted and built up in Him and established in the faith, as you have been taught, abounding in it with Thanksgiving.” We know that, as James says, “every good and perfect gift comes from above” (1:17). We know that everything we have is received. We don’t thank ourselves. We thank God, the giver of all gifts. Knowing the abundance of our options, how do we narrow it down? How do we choose one or two things to share with our family at the Thanksgiving table?
Imagine how much easier it would be to figure out what to say if Jesus was sitting next to you and you could hear his answer first. “What he said” would be my answer. “I’m thankful for what Jesus is thankful for.”
So let’s consider that scenario. What would Jesus say at your dinner table? While you obviously can’t know exactly what he’d say, you can get a pretty good idea if you look at the four times Jesus expressed gratitude during his earthly ministry. These four examples not only show us what Jesus is thankful for, they also give us clear direction, as followers of Christ, for our own gratitude this holiday season.
The first time Jesus expressed gratitude is in Matthew 11:25. “At that time Jesus declared, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understand and revealed them to little children.”
The “time” Jesus refers to would seem like an unlikely context for gratitude. In the previous five verses, Jesus declared a series of judgments on cities where he’d recently performed miracles, such as Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum. He ends this section by saying “if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I tell you that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you” (Matt 11:23-24). Yikes. Those are the two verses that directly precede his expression of gratitude. What a context for thanksgiving!
Why is Jesus thankful for this level of judgment? He traces it back to the purposes of God. In his sovereignty, God typically calls the weak and despised of this world. He chooses the outcast and the humble. He prioritizes those, like little children, who do not have power and know they cannot lean on their own intelligence or sophistication. He is attracted to those people that the world despises. People who use political and religious power for their own gain are the objects of God’s wrath. So are those who, in their pride, reject God and refuse to believe in him. That was certainly true of the cities Jesus denounces. They had seen Jesus’s work and they had refused to believe in him. And that made Jesus thankful that humility, simple faith, and childlike trust are the objects of God’s delight instead of raw power, political sophistication, or religious intelligence. That’s certainly something we can all be grateful for at Thanksgiving. God’s propensity toward the weak and despised opens the way of salvation for all who would believe. God is not a despiser of persons. That’s something Jesus would express gratitude for at the thanksgiving table this year.
Jesus’s second expression of gratitude is found in John 11, where Jesus is about to raise his friend Lazarus from the dead. As the stone to Lazarus’s tomb is rolled away, Jesus prays. “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around that they may believe that you sent me” (41-42).
At first, this seems like a simple expression of gratitude. Jesus is grateful that his prayers reach the throne of grace. His heavenly father hears him. That’s certainly a reason for gratitude. Hebrews 4 reminds us that when we come to the throne of grace, we find “mercy to help in time of need” (16). Our all-powerful, all-knowing, creator God hears our prayers. That is an extraordinary fact worth celebrating and being grateful for this Thanksgiving. But there’s more to Jesus’s prayer here. He isn’t just grateful that his heavenly father hears him. He is grateful that His Father is hearing his prayer for Lazarus and raising him from the dead in order that those around him will be convinced that Jesus was sent from God. Jesus is grateful that his heavenly father sent him to earth, and he is grateful that the power of God was revealed through him so that people will believe. Jesus wants to save sinners. That’s why he reveals his power through miracles like the raising of Lazarus. He wants to show people that their faith in him is not blind. There is abundant evidence that Jesus is the Christ. This Thanksgiving, Jesus would be grateful that his heavenly Father has revealed his power in order to save sinners. That’s something we can all be grateful for, a God who seeks the lost so persistently, he is willing to send his son, hear his son’s prayers, and work through his son’s power to raise the dead and validate his son as the Messiah.
Jesus’s third and fourth expressions of gratitude express the same object of Thanksgiving, so we’ll look at them together. In Matthew 15:36, Jesus thanks the Father for the seven loaves and four fishes he used to feed the 4,000. Then in Luke 22:17, Jesus expresses gratitude for the food they are about to partake of during the last supper. In both circumstances, Jesus is expressing the same gratitude Christians express before each meal: gratitude to the giver of that meal. Even Jesus, who created the world (see Hebrews 1:2), expresses gratitude for the gift of daily sustenance. He doesn’t overlook this simple practice. He knows that a habitual act of thanksgiving before a meal serves as a regular reminder (three times a day) that we have received everything, even our most basic needs. If that was a necessary reminder in Jesus’s day, it certainly is essential in the 21st century, when our basic needs are acquired with little effort. If we need food, we go to a grocery store where it’s all laid out in extraordinary abundance, or we go to a restaurant where it’s delivered on a platter. If we need clothes, we have limitless options. Same is true for shelter. We don’t have to kill our food, build our houses, or thread our clothes. Yet that doesn’t mean we’ve usurped the Lord’s place. We may act like we have not received everything, but we still have. A ritual act of Thanksgiving for our food pushes back against the 21st century milieu of self-sufficiency. It teaches us and reminds us that God is still the provider of everything. Jesus understood that. We must understand the same, certainly at Thanksgiving. But also throughout the year.
So what would Jesus say at your Thanksgiving table? He’d be thankful for the seeking nature of God, who despises no persons and saves all those who repent. He’d be grateful for the power of God that makes that salvation possible through the work and sacrifice of Christ. And he’d be grateful for the God who provides every need, including that glorious meal that you might need a nap to recover from this Thanksgiving.